45. Can a Bad Man be a Good Musician?

How can a man tune a lute who is himself out of tune?
What sense of harmony can he have who is himself full of discords?

Fernando de Rojas (1477–1541)

A chaste poet will produce chaste poems.

Cervantes (1547–1616)

We, as humans, have two sides. We have a rational side, for the most part the left hemisphere of the brain, which is an accumulation of a life time exposure to data: language; math; books and newspapers, etc. But none of this is us, it is all something we have been told by someone else and it is all past tense! The other side of our self, for the most part the right hemisphere of the brain, is the real us, for it consists of what we have learned from our own direct, personal experience.

In most professions the real person is hidden from view. A physician, for example, deals in a world of facts and everything he does or says is based on rational information. We never see the real person. The same is true of an actor. He is representing a character in a script, a fictional character consisting of words. The good actor becomes this fictional character on stage, but we do not see the real actor.

Only in a musician is it possible to see the real person. When we look at a painting by Van Gogh we do not immediately communicate with Van Gogh, for the canvas stands between us. We must deal with the canvas by eye before we can hope to see what the artist was thinking. Music is quite different. Music is the only art in which the observer (listener) has a direct connection with the artist (composer). This is because of the universal and genetic nature of emotions, which is the language of music. When a performer performs a Beethoven piano sonata the performer must personify the emotions of Beethoven. Beethoven is dead. The only way Beethoven can come alive is through the emotions and feelings of the performer. At the same time, again because of the universal and genetic nature of the emotions, the basic emotions we hear are also Beethoven’s.

For this reason, anytime we hear a person perform music, that person, as a person, is exposed to us as well as the notes of the music. It is impossible for the real person to hide his true nature during performance. Anyone who does not want the world to see his innermost private identification as a person should never perform as a musician in public.

This fact about musicians is so obvious that it has been noticed and remarked upon for thousands of years. Here is a passage from Plato (427–347 BC), which gives the impression that he thought the character of the performer, here a singer/poet, was as important as the music itself. He demands a performer who is mature, who has accomplished some noble or illustrious deed and who is a good man!

Let poets celebrate the victors, — not however every poet, but only one who in the first place is not less than fifty years of age; nor should he be one who, although he may have musical and poetical gifts, has never in his life done any noble or illustrious action; but those who are themselves good and also honorable in the state, creators of noble actions — let their poems be sung, even though they are not very musical. And let the judgment of them rest with the instructor of youth and the other guardians of the laws, who shall give them this privilege, and they alone shall be free to sing; but the rest of the world shall not have this liberty. Nor shall anyone dare to sing a song which has not been approved by the judgment of the guardians of the laws, not even if his strain be sweeter than the songs of Thamyras and Orpheus; but only such poems as have been judged sacred and dedicated to the Gods, and such as are the works of good men.1

The famous philosopher and geographer, Strabo (63 BC–24 AD), makes the point we made above. In a carpenter (who deals with rational measurements), he says, the character of the person does not matter. But in the case of a poet, and the reader must remember that poetry was sung at this time, he says the work and the man are “inseparable.” It is impossible, he says, to be a good singer unless you are a good person.

Of course we do not speak of the excellence of a poet in the same sense as we speak of that of a carpenter or a blacksmith; for their excellence depends upon no inherent nobility and dignity, whereas the excellence of a poet is inseparably associated with the excellence of the man himself, and it is impossible for one to become a good poet unless he has previously become a good man.2

The early Church Father, St Basil (329–379), held this same principle to be true even for the members of the congregation who sing hymns! He admits that the chief value of singing psalms is “to calm and soften the wicked spirits which trouble souls.” Nevertheless, he maintains that a “bad” person cannot sing the psalms with spiritual success.

How many stand there, coming from fornication? How many from theft? How many concealing in their hearts deceit? How many lying? They think they are singing, although in truth they are not singing. For, the Scripture invites the saint to the singing of psalms. “A bad tree cannot bear good fruit,” nor a bad heart utter words of life.3

The fact that the character of the performing musician cannot be hidden from the observer is sometimes mentioned during the Renaissance in the form of the question, “can an out of tune player play in tune?” An example of this can be found in a famous work by the Spaniard, Fernando de Rojas (1477–1541). In this passage, the love sick Calisto decides to sing a song of love.

Calisto: Sempronio!
Sempronio: Sir?
Calisto: Bring me my lute.
Sempronio: Here it is, sir.
Calisto (sings):
“Can any grief compare
With what I bear?”
Sempronio: The lute’s out of tune.
Calisto: How can a man tune it who is himself out of tune? What sense of harmony can he have who is himself full of discords? A man whose will refuses to obey his reason, who has barbs in his breast, in whom peace and war, love and hate, injury, guilt, and suspicions battle together? Here, take the lute and sing me the saddest song you know.4

There is an interesting discussion of our subject by Vincenzo Galilei (1533–1591), father of the famous astronomer, Galileo. He mentions in passing the aesthetic principle often mentioned in early literature, that an architect is to be more admired than a mason, because he uses his brain rather than his hands. This ancient prejudice is with us still in the example of some famous universities who find places for composers, but do not accept on equal terms performers.

With regard to our topic, he is the first philosopher to bring the listener into the discussion. Galilei contends that the performer who is a good man can make the man who listens to him a better man. Thus, for Galilei, character was a necessary element of the definition of the most esteemed musician. After a few observations on deficient performers, those with no imagination or poor technique, he says “those most esteemed are those who teach us something,” meaning affect our character in the manner of the ancient Greeks. It follows, he says, “that the character of the musician is an inseparable component.” There is also the suggestion here that the teacher who places emphasis on entertaining his students follows a very old model.

For those who teach us a virtue are much more to be esteemed, and the rarer and more excellent they are the more so, than those who merely delight us with their buffooneries…. And I say that they are even more deserving when that knowledge of theirs is combined with the highest character, as these are the things chiefly to be desired in the perfect musician and in every follower of the arts, in order that with his learning and his character he may make those who frequent him and listen to him men of learning and good character. In addition I say that it is impossible to find a man who is truly a musician and is vicious, and that if a man has a vicious nature, it will be difficult, or rather impossible for him to be virtuous and to make others virtuous.5

There was a rare Renaissance philosopher, Girolamo Cardano (1501–1576), who has left a music treatise which has a rather darker view. Cardano’s education began under his father, a lawyer in Milan, who taught him arithmetic, geometry and astrology. Music lessons were made possible, secretly, through the aid of his mother. In later years he would remember this music teacher, Leo Oglonus, for his high moral standards.

Cardano studied medicine, and received his degree, but was refused permission to practice because the College of Physicians in Milan were under the suspicion that he was of illegitimate birth. He was able to gain an appointment as a lecturer in mathematics for the Piatti Foundation, which was the turning point in his career. He attracted large audiences for his lectures and published his first two books on mathematics in 1539. With this boost to his self-confidence, Cardano began to fight back against the doctors of Milan. He published a book called On the Bad Practices of Medicine which was immediately popular with the public.

The things which give most reputation to a physician nowadays are his manners, servants, carriage, clothes, smartness, and caginess, all displayed in a sort of artificial and insipid way; learning and experience seem to count for nothing.6

Public pressure caused the College of Physicians to relent and within a few years Cardano became one of the most famous physicians in Europe. Receiving offers from nobles everywhere for his services, Cardano traveled widely and was always received with the greatest acclaim.

All in all, this was a strange man and before continuing with his writings it might be well to let him describe himself.

Nature has made me capable, pious, faithful, meditative, inventive, courageous, cunning, crafty, sarcastic, industrious, diligent, ingenious, impertinent, contemptuous of religion, grudging, envious, sad, treacherous, magician and sorcerer, miserable, hateful, lascivious, solitary, disagreeable, rude, divinator, changeable, irresolute, indecent, quarrelsome, and because of the conflicts between my nature and soul I am not understood even by those with whom I associate most frequently.7

As we have mentioned above, this curious man had a rather dim view of musicians and their character, as the following passage demonstrates,

Music is also of worth because it is a pleasing pastime and is useful for discipline and as a cultural value of life. Also, it affords pleasure without detriment it is beneficial to all and especially to children… If we [employ Music at home] the singers will be maintained at great expense and they will corrupt the characters of our young boys and adolescents, for most of them are drunkards and gluttons, also wanton, fickle, impatient, coarse, indolent, and tainted with every kind of unlawful desire. The best of them are fools.8

The greatest French essay writer of the 16th century was unquestionably Michel Montaigne (1533–1592). After an education in law at Toulouse, he became in turn a soldier, courtier, traveler and mayor of Bordeaux During Montaigne’s discussion of his objections to the fact that professors are learned but not wise, he observes that professors can recognize bad qualities in literature but not in themselves. Here he adds a suggestion that the quality of a musical performer can not be separated from his quality as a person, “Dionysius used to laugh … at musicians whose flutes were harmonious but not their morals.”9

Interestingly enough, Montaigne exempts preachers, saying that while the personal sins of preachers were “shaking the truth taught in our Church,” he suggests that “we must consider the preaching and the preacher apart.” On the other hand, he wondered if writers should be in the same category as musicians, reflecting, “I never read an author…without curiously inquiring what sort of man he was.”10

The great Spanish writer, Cervantes (1547–1616), felt about poets as others felt about musicians, maintaining, “a chaste poet will produce chaste poems, for the pen speaks for the soul.”11 His contemporary, the Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega (1562–1635), has the main character in his most famous play comment, “the genius of music, as my master Enrique used to tell me, lies not in skilled fingers nor in a voice well trained, but in the soul itself.”12

The German philosopher, Henry Agrippa (1486–1536), in his earlier De occulta Philosophia had discussed the impressive references to the character of the various modes by the ancients, but fifteen years later he finds that in his experience music has been degraded in practice by the character of the men who perform it.

Although men confess that this art has much sweetness, yet the common opinion is, and everyone may see it by experience, that it is the exercise of base men, and of unprofitable and intemperate wit…. For this reason Music has ever been wandering here and there for price and pence and is the servant of bawdy.13

Martin Luther, in a dinner conversation, makes a rather back-handed compliment about such performers. Because their character is so bad, he says, it makes the music, by contrast, look good.

Music is a semi-discipline and taskmistress, which makes people milder and more gentle, more civil and more sensible. The wicked gut-scrapers and fiddlers serve the purpose of enabling us to see and hear what a fine and wholesome art music really is; for white is more clearly recognized when it is contrasted with black.14

In the English Baroque Period poetry of George Wither (1588–1667), the poet suggests that some musicians have manners which might be improved by changing their repertoire.

Many musicians are more out of order than their instruments… They who are better tempered, are hereby [reminded] what music is most acceptable to God, and most profitable to themselves.15

And finally, John Milton (1608–1674) once remarked, “a good song is spoiled by a lewd singer.”16

As these centuries of philosophers have made clear, we should not be surprised to discover the role of the character of the player in his music making. Because we see the innermost essence of the player when he performs, it is amazing to us that this opportunity has not become the focus of music education, helping the student to come to know himself on the experiential side of himself and to develop experience in his understanding of his own emotions. It should be the highest calling of music education. And if music educators elect not to do this, then who else will? We leave it to the student himself to stumble his way through his youth, learning about his emotional make up not from fine art, but from his peers.


  1. Laws, 829c ↩︎
  2. The Geography of Strabo, trans., H. L. Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), I.2.5 ↩︎
  3. St Basil, “Homily 14,” in Exegetic Homilies, trans., Sister Agnes Way (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press), 217 ↩︎
  4. Fernando de Rojas, La Celestina, trans., J. M. Cohen (New York University Press, 1966), Act I ↩︎
  5. Galilei, “Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna,” in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, 320ff ↩︎
  6. Quoted in Oystein Ore, Cardano The Gambling Scholar (New York: Dover, 1953), 12 ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 25ff ↩︎
  8. Quoted in Clement Miller, Hieronymus Cardanus, Writings on Music (American Institute of Musicology, 1973), 197ff ↩︎
  9. Essays, trans., M. A. Screech (London: Penguin, 1993), xxv, 156 ↩︎
  10. Ibid., II, xxxi, 811ff ↩︎
  11. The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, trans., Celia Weller and Clark Colahan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) ↩︎
  12. La Dorotea, trans., Alan Trueblood and Edwin Honig (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985),V, ix ↩︎
  13. De occulta Philosophia, I, x ↩︎
  14. Quoted in Buszin, Walter E., and Martin Luther. “Luther on Music.” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 (1946): 92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/739566 ↩︎
  15. Nr. 26–27, “Halelviah,” Hymn XXXVIII ↩︎
  16. “Animadversions,” in. Frank Patterson, ed., The Works of John Milton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931-1938), III, 176 ↩︎